Most famous fighters are magnificent thoroughbreds, the best of the best of their contemporaries, if only in some sharp tactical way that, very temporarily, makes them special. The P40 was an exception. Competent and rugged, its brilliance flowed not from its very mediocre specifications, speeds, and performance, but from the sharp minds and aggressive spirit of the tough, hard-nosed men who planned the aircraft’s missions and tactics, as well as those who executed those desperate adventures.
The P40 was not only one of the most controversial fighters of World War II, but is in some ways the most mysterious, for its entire history was shrouded in the mists of propaganda, several horrible fictional movies like The Flying Tigers, wartime secrecy, and the general tendency of the period’s journalists to believe more or less anything they were fed or get swept up with the jingoism of the time. Never much more than an inline-engined version of the older P36, the P40 had problems meeting even minimum performance standards throughout its service life. Designed for low to medium altitude air defense and ground attack inside the continental U.S. Defense Strategy of the late 30’s, the Curtiss machine was essentially obsolete when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Still, the P40 was in full production almost four years later, and at war’s end, roughly 14,000 had been delivered. Never much more than competent, the P40 was probably the least expensive fighter produced in numbers for the USAAF, averaging less than $23,000, and falling continually as later models were delivered, since little retool proved necessary.
The War Department ordered 524 P40’s April 27th, 1939, the largest fighter order since The Great War. This fighter was selected over its competitors largely because Curtiss could begin production immediately.
Production aircraft arrived in Spring of 1940. High altitude performance was mediocre to poor throughout the P40’s life, though several Merlin-engined production variants later attempted to remedy the Allison’s shortcomings. The War Department was aware of the deficiencies, but awaited the maturing of better aircraft like the P38 and P47, and elected to leave P40’s engine installation essentially unchanged rather than interrupt production. This was probably wise, for delays might have left the Army with no competent fighters at all until well into 1943.
The P40 might have lived and died as a relatively little-known fighter-bomber had it not been for events in the Far East thrusting the fighter to the forefront of war news. Claire Chennault, a retired Air Corps Colonel acting as commanding General of the Chinese Air Force since 1938, had closely watched Japanese equipment and tactics during their ongoing mainland war with China. In mid-1941, he began to recruit Americans into his bedraggled force, and made plans to acquire late-model American equipment, including P40’s released from British and French contracts. His American Volunteer Group (AGV) soon became famous as “The Flying Tigers”. Chennault’s tactics involved using P-40’s in two-plane elements and entering and leaving all combat in fast, diving maneuvers, avoiding any elaborate turning contests with the faster, nimbler Japanese Mitsubishi Zero and Nakajima Ki.43 fighters. Chennault had warned Washington military bureaucrats about the state-of-the-art Japanese fighters as early as 1940, and was dismissed by American officialdom as a fool. Entering combat on 20 December, 1941, not as so many fictional/fantasy films suggest, “long before Pearl Harbor” but 13 days after, the AVG’s grinning, shark-mouthed P40’s destroyed about 300 Japanese aircraft, 231 absolutely confirmed, losing only 23 of their own pilots. The AVG never owned more than 130 fighters, almost all P40’s, and could never have turned the tide. But in this theater, and because of the monetary arrangements with the Chinese government,
confirmation of kills was uniquely proscribed, and among all the news of allied defeats and reverses, the AVG’s local victories were sweet news indeed to Americans at the home front end of the 10,000 mile supply line.
After the early combat models, the E and N series were the main service versions of the P40. The F and K versions were similar, but used the Packard-built Merlin in a somewhat inefficient installation that impaired the supercharging capabilities, so that altitude increase was not as substantial as in North American’s P51B and subsequent Mustangs using the same engines. P40N’s were the most widely built variants, running to about 5000 aircraft. The British called all D and subsequent versions “Kittyhawks”. The N was widely exported, serving with ANZAC, British, Free French, and many other air forces, usually in the fighter-bomber role.
Several later variants attempted to equal the P51’s performance; none succeeded, and though there was considerable improvement, not enough to justify new, more expensive production of obsolescent machines.
Imperfect But Solid
With all its deficiencies, the P40 was a solid, reasonably easily-serviced machine, perhaps toughest of all World War II liquid-cooled fighter and probably the only one which could have been kept airworthy under the crude conditions in 1941-42 mainland Asia, where “recycled” spark plugs and tape-spliced wire were pro forma.